Many Post-Secondary Students Are Experiencing Food Insecurity
A new study surveyed 5,000 students across Canada.
Hunger has changed addresses since city food banks made it a visible public issue across Canada during the 1980s. Back then, the newly emerging problem of hunger was seen as a problem facing poor people in the inner city.
Today, the highest and most severe rates of food insecurity (a broader term than hunger) are among First Nations communities in the Far North and in universities of major cities.
And the most alarming new trend is the rise of food insecurity uptown, in the gown neighborhoods of town and gown. There are over 100 food banks on Canadian campuses.
Hungry For Knowledge, a new report released in October, estimates an overall campus food insecurity rate of 39 per cent. Allowing for differences in report methodologies and living conditions, the numbers are alarmingly close to the 46.8 per cent rate of food insecurity in the Arctic.
Campus food insecurity brings the problem close to home.
It is no longer a problem suffered by “others” who live elsewhere and who have never figured as a presence in politics or the media. Food insecurity is now a problem in the 2-million-strong post-secondary talent pool that future leaders will be drawn from.
Policy-wise, the change in address has momentous significance.
The campus base means food insecurity is no longer the exclusive concern of minor and peripheral government units in public health and social development.
It will become what’s called a “whole of government/whole of society” issue. It will be in the domain of the big budget battalions of government—education and health—which, like the universities that have allowed this issue to fester, are unprepared and unqualified to deal with the problem.
Sponsored by the cross-Canada student group Meal Exchange and prepared by social work graduate student Drew Silverthorn, the report is based on surveys of almost 5,000 students on five campuses across the country.
Ryerson University was studied in some depth.
As has been the case since the 1980s, the subject matter of this report has been ignored by professionals in government and university departments with significant research budgets. It came to public attention on shoestring budgets, thanks to underfunded community organizations and professionals early in their careers.
But the credibility of the report cannot be denied. It confirms the patterns found in five studies on individual campuses in Canada over the last decade and of several studies conducted at U.S. universities. The report’s methodology received the go-ahead from the universities’ ethics committees—which are notoriously rigorous on methodology issues—at each of the five universities studied.
The report follows recent trends in food security reporting by identifying two groupings of people dealing with food insecurity.
One grouping, almost 31 per cent of the student population, could be called “moderately insecure.” They are anxious all month that their budget won’t cover their meal costs, they stretch their food budget by choosing low-cost and low-quality filler, and they skip a meal from time to time to make ends meet.
A second grouping, about 8 per cent of the student population, could be deemed “severely insecure.” They sometimes go without eating for an entire day, or even several days.
Though broad-spectrum food insecurity is pervasive in the student body, the report draws attention to racial and ethnocultural factors. Among students with families from the Caribbean, food security is a problem for 53 per cent. Among First Nations students, it is a problem for 56 per cent.
The report is presented without dramatics. To avoid speculating, and to stick with the clear reality of the numbers, the report focuses on students, not universities.
To my mind, this misses an opportunity that I highlighted in a 2014 report I wrote for Meal Exchange—to identify the university on two levels: what the university can do for food and what food can do for the university.
Given the social and physiological importance of food for young adults, the impact of such widespread food insecurity on the university experience is hard to underestimate.
Food is generally recognized as a critical factor in mental health and well-being, both of which are severe challenges for post-secondary students.
According to a report released in September, one in five Canadian university students reports mental health difficulties.
Students who haven’t eaten a balanced meal or anything on a given day may nod off in class or otherwise miss out on the intellectual experience of university. That is a larger problem for institutions that receive government money to open the gates to the knowledge economy.
Left to their own devices, underfunded students adopt the strategy of stretching their food budget by filling up on low-quality foods. This is not the time in their lives to do this, according to modern studies of distinct phases of the human brain’s development.
It is now widely recognized that the usual years of going to university coincide with maturation of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, the executive suite in charge of impulse control short-term memory, attention, logical thinking, and complex planning. Not a smart time to skip the serving of brain food.
Aside from physiology, food is central to the student social experience at university—eating provides an opportunity to spend time with friends.
Meal Exchange executive director Anita Abraham is delicate when describing official university reaction to the information in the report.
“Problems have developed at a pace they were not prepared for,” she tells me.
Given that most university leaders are familiar with the classic saying about “a sound mind in a sound body,” their lack of capacity on this file is a failure of strategic planning and accountability to the larger society.
According to Abraham, university officials refer questions about student financial need to their student aid programs, as if this were an issue of personal need and individual significance.
With the notable exception of the University of Toronto, universities treat food as an “ancillary service,” which means they lease it out to global corporations that generate revenue for the university. Food is not defined or treated as a core service.
Though universities go along with this without protest, the treatment of food as an ancillary service is a legal imposition by provinces, which makes them responsible for the sorry state of affairs.
University health centres have some distance to go to reach basic competence. York University’s health service is in hot water for a brochure on mental health that recommends a good night’s sleep, self-acceptance, and positive relationships. Positive relationships with food are not specified.
Advice on York’s website recommends that people “participate in their own well-being.” Learn to “play an instrument or how to cook your favourite food,” it recommends, and “savour the moment, whether you are walking to work, eating lunch or talking to friends.”
Why don’t we just deny that a problem exists?
Abraham hoped the report would “start the conversation that needs to happen.”
Food projects developed by Meal Exchange over the past 20 years, whether they focused on contributing to food banks or promoting local and sustainable food on campus, were “always about building student leadership” on broad social issues, she says.
Now, students have their own needs, “and leadership for the future will be a byproduct of efforts to deal with student need now.”
Wayne Roberts writes on food and cities in his newsletter.